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How I Fell in Love with “Shaniqua”: Why African-Americans DON’T Need New Names

I spent my formative years in the small predominately black city of East Saint Louis, Illinois.  I grew up with friends whose names were Shaunta, Kwintessa, LaCreshia, Tameka, Ariana, Tanisha, and Miesha.  The boys who chased us had names like Lamont, Tyrone, Demetrius, Terrell, Malik, Darnell and Jamal. Everything about what we called each other felt right.  These were our names and we carried them with pride, correcting pronunciation when warranted, enunciating each consonant and vowel, spelling it when the listener didn’t return the right phonetic sounds associated with our identity.     

It wasn’t until I moved to the suburbs that I realized the shame that had been misappropriated upon such names.  How both black and white folks with plainer names snickered at those of us who had more intricately “ethnic” names. It was when I shared classrooms with the Sarahs, Emilys, Kates, Connors, Dustins and Lukes that I embraced nicknames—dropping “-nique” and adding an extra “e” to “Ze” or taking on the highly regarded Buddhist term which also happens to be the first syllable of my name. 

As I got older and my social circles continued to diversify, I became more lenient about how others referred to me, readily offering “Zee” as an alternative during quick introductions and in insignificant small-talk interactions. 

Then, last year, these things happened:

  • A reporter dismissed Quvenzhane’ Wallis’ name altogether and wanted to call her by the character she will play in an upcoming movie   
  • Following that debacle, this quote from Somali poet, Warsan Shire surfaced:

“Give your daughters difficult names.

Give your daughters names that command the full use of tongue.

My name makes you want to tell me the truth.

My name doesn’t allow me to trust anyone that cannot pronounce it right.”

  • At an event, a stranger scolded me when I allowed a man to automatically shorten my name after I had uttered my full first name to him twice
  • I spent two weeks in Nigeria and attended a workshop in Lagos with Damilola, Okechukwu, Timendu, Kelechi, Arinze, and Uchenna who represented the Igbo, Yoruba, and Hausa tribes
  • And then I went to Uganda for three months and hung out with Margaret, Ruth, Alice, Ben, Mark, and Alex – my Baganda, Bakiga, and Acholi friends who preferred their “Christian” names versus the names of their ancestors
  • I had a conversation with a close Ugandan friend who gave her daughter an African name after a talk with her husband where he suggested that they give their children African names. She quoted his question, “Why should we take on the names of white people? Would they take on ours?”

Somewhere in the midst of these experiences, I began to see the beauty of African-American names, both subtle and extreme.  Yes, even the stereotypical “black” names that are used in sitcoms and parodies—the Shananaes and Shaniquas and Tyrones; the names we chuckle at when reading it on applications and Facebook profiles; the names we laugh and ask, “Now what were his/her parents thinking about when they named that child that?”

I will tell you what they were probably thinking: They were probably thinking of a unique and royal title for their child—something strong, significant, and complicated, much like our history, our legacy, our obstacles.  They were probably thinking of a name that curls and catches on the tongue with the clicks and slits reminiscent of the languages we lost long ago.  They were probably proud of their blackness, their heritage, their culture and they made the decision NOT to give in to the societal pressures of dumbing down a name to something common and insignificant to appease the naysayers.

Today, I think these names deserve an apology and applause—even if only in our hearts and even if these are names that we wouldn’t choose for our own children. Let us uplift the parents who are brave enough to bestow such a brand of names on their children who, in turn, should be able to bear them proudly.       

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47 thoughts on “How I Fell in Love with “Shaniqua”: Why African-Americans DON’T Need New Names

  1. Krystal Johnson on said:

    I love this!

  2. keemthao on said:

    I loved reading this!

  3. Joshua Muzei on said:

    This is such an applause for the native names. I love my native name.

  4. Okechukwu on said:

    Deep and touching. I had proposed long ago, in my heart, that my kids’ names will reflect their true African identity. Thanks for reinforcing that decision.

  5. hasifah namuli on said:

    well i guess being a muganda, i will stick to my Kiganda name, NAMULI….

  6. Moving. Our names tell so much about who we are. I am a child of an inter-tribal marriage, ‘Hausa/Ikulu’ and Yoruba, and names have always meant more to me. Thanks for reminding me of the very importance of the identity I bear.

  7. Eric Shanyungu on said:

    I am really proud of my african name and I think it is the only think that no one can take off me….thanks

  8. Please take a look at the trailer for my film in progress – Searching for Shaniqua. I would love to interview you. There’s an article about the film on The Root if you want to hear more about the project.

  9. Zenzi M Hodge on said:

    Great article! My name is Zenzilé and as a child I allowed people to shorten or otherwise butcher my name. By college, I held up a class in order for my professor to properly pronounce my name. Our names have meaning and purpose just as we do. Your article definitely punctuates that. Thank you.

    • Zenzile’! Girl, YOUR name is stunning! My four siblings and I all have “Z” names, so we are always thrilled to find one we haven’t heard yet. 🙂 Thank you for sharing your story. I have heard many this week and I am so happy that this post resonates with others. Thanks again, Zenzi!

      • filmmaker on said:

        THANK YOU ! I finally found someone who agrees with me! The Cosby mentality toward the unique names of Black people is doing more harm than good. If the so called educated blacks can appreciate and respect the different names in other cultures, they can certainly do the same with the traditionally unique names found in their own. Good work!! Please continue!!

  10. siza cutaia on said:

    Very well said, thank you!

  11. Christine on said:

    I love this article! My daughter is 6 and it took me 3 days to name her because I was torn between an “easy” name (Leah, Avery, Olivia or Ruby), and a “hard” name (Ayira or Zereena); I ended up naming her Ayira (eye-year-rah, meaning “Chosen and Ordained”), and i’m so glad I did! Her father and I agreed that we wanted her to be one of a kind with a special meaning, and to this day, we’ve only met one other Ayira!

    • Oh man, Christine! You couldn’t have picked a more beautiful name– and with such great meaning. Aren’t you proud of that today?

      Ayira: chosen; ordained= Powerful.

      Thank you for reading and sharing your story! Be well.

  12. awesome story! I thank you for sharing this insight. Your story reminds me of my story. I too grew up with a lot of shame and instead of shortening my name, I closed myself off to my community and race. It wasn’t until I attended college and read Malcolm X’s autobiography that I could look into the mirror and feel proud.
    God bless!

  13. Robin on said:

    I woke up to this on Facebook this morning, and am SO happy that I did! I was not familiar with the origins of your names, and I am glad to know their stories. You are all spectacular, powerful, remarkable people with deep roots and amazing histories, and you should never let them go!

  14. filmmaker on said:

    THANK YOU ! I finally found someone who agrees with me! The Cosby mentality toward the unique names of Black people is doing more harm than good. If the so called educated blacks can appreciate and respect the different names in other cultures, they can certainly do the same with the traditionally unique names found in their own. Good work!! Please continue!!

  15. Embrace your name! What a great article. Well put & thank you so much for sharing. I too found this article on Facebook & am so glad I took the time to read it.

    This happens even with “common” names. People often try to shorten my name to Pat or Patty without my permission. They mispronounce my chosen nickname as Tricia/Trisha, or Tee-sha instead of Tisha (short i). A black singer once asked my why I had a “sistas name.” Lol!

    My mother hates her “unusual” name (Tamaris- pronounced tuh-MEHR-ris), & refused to let me use it as a middle name for my daughter (Fiona). My dad’s name (Iliff- pronounced EYE-lif) if often mispronounced as well. I think their names are wonderful. The key is respect. If someone can’t take the time to pronounce my name correctly, they, obviously, do not respect me as a person. So, excuse me if I don’t give them any of my time.

  16. Zenique, you already know we are >>here<<< on this. I was born Tafakari Tumaini and it's taken me my whole life to love the person I was born to be.

  17. Reblogged this on The Modern Pencil and commented:
    I substitute teach in the Pgh Public Schools and I could not agree more that the name shame has to stop. Beautifully written article, well worth the read.

  18. Beautiful, Zenique. As always, you manage to take on a controversial topic with elegance and grace, leaving the reader, in my case, gently corrected and feeling good about themselves in the process.

  19. Alisia M. Epps-M, thank you for your comment– you are far too kind. Great hair, btw!

  20. This is absolutely beautiful!

  21. Saran on said:

    Great piece! The quote from the Somali poet spoke to my soul! I love my unique name, ‘Saran’, pronounced ‘Shah-ran’. It’s West African & means “joy.” No nicknames allowed; you will be corrected nicely when you say it wrong LOL. My two boys have unique names – Amir (prince; one who is most exhaulted) & Mekhi (angel; messenger from God). Thanks for writing this….and sharing it.

  22. skmart72 on said:

    Great piece! The quote from the Somali poet spoke to my soul! I love my unique name, ‘Saran’, pronounced ‘Shah-ran’. It’s West African & means “joy.” No nicknames allowed; you will be corrected nicely when you say it wrong LOL. My two boys have unique names – Amir (prince; one who is most exhaulted) & Mekhi (angel; messenger from God). Thanks for writing this….and sharing it.

  23. jwilhite on said:

    Just found this site…I have to disagree. There is one problem, we live in America, not on another continent. My assumption is some of these folks have no knowledge of their heritage. These names are just made up, due to lack of education. Got nothing to do with white folks. In the real world applications are skipped over. Its okay to have pride and self awareness, but some times things such as a name can pose life long problems, ask the JEWS.

  24. Hello there! This blog post couldn’t be written any
    better! Reading through this article reminds me of my previous roommate!
    He constantly kept preaching about this. I am going to forward this information to him.
    Pretty sure he’s going to have a very good read. Many thanks for sharing!

  25. Particularly this part of your post–They were probably proud of their blackness, their heritage, their culture and they made the decision NOT to give in to the societal pressures of dumbing down a name to something common and insignificant to appease the naysayers– reminded me of so many people I got to meet in the Adult Learning Academy at Forest Park Community College.

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